Unreasonable / Unreasonably Persistent Complaints and Communications Policy

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Legal terms and policies

Reading time approx: 5 minutes
Published on 9 April 2024

1. Strategy

At West Midlands Fire Service (WMFS), we are committed to providing efficient and effective services to our community and to providing openness and transparency. We appreciate the opportunity to receive comments, compliments and where necessary, complaints from our service users, and recognise that feedback is an essential component of continuous improvement. However, there may be instances where external complaints or communications are unreasonable or unreasonably persistent in nature or become vexatious.

2. Purpose

This policy provides clear and transparent guidance to the public regarding what will be considered unreasonable or unreasonably persistent complaints or communications.

The policy outlines our approach to handling such situations, in compliance with relevant legislation including the Freedom of Information Act 2000 (FOIA 2000) and the UK General Data Protection Regulation (UK GDPR), ensuring that requests made under these laws are handled appropriately while protecting sensitive information.

The aim of the policy is to contribute to the overall aim of dealing with all complainants in ways which are demonstrably consistent, fair and reasonable.

3. Responsibility

The Data and Governance Manager is responsible for advising on compliance with the Data Protection Act 2018, the Freedom of Information Act 2000 and associated legislation.

Corporate Communications are responsible for the management of the organisation’s Customer Care and Comments, Compliments and Complaints procedures (CCC).

The Monitoring Officer and or Clerk to the Fire Authority are responsible for reviewing potentially manifestly unfounded or unreasonable or unreasonably persistent requests and determining appropriate restrictions.

Line managers are responsible for ensuring that staff are aware of this policy.

Employees are responsible for adhering to this policy.

4. Procedures

4.1. Definitions

4.1.1. Unreasonable Complaints

Complaints which are, frivolous, misconceived or lacking in substance, and/or cause a disproportionate or unjustified level of disruption, irritation or distress.

4.1.2. Unreasonably Persistent Communications

Communications or requests that are repetitive, excessive, or harassing in nature, and impose an unreasonable burden on our resources.

4.1.3 Vexatious Requests

Requests or complaints which are repeatedly (more than twice) manifestly unjustified, inappropriate or improper use of a formal procedure.

4.2. Criteria for Consideration

Raising legitimate queries, criticisms or complaints, even repeatedly, does not in itself lead to someone being regarded as a vexatious or an unreasonably persistent complainant. Similarly, the fact that a complainant is unhappy with the outcome of a complaint and seeks to challenge it once, (or more than once), does not necessarily cause them to be labelled vexatious or unreasonably persistent.

We will consider a complaint or communication unreasonable or unreasonably persistent if it meets one or more of the following criteria:

  • It is abusive, offensive, or directly or indirectly threatening in nature. Including the use of offensive or demeaning language.
  • The request is insisting on immediate responses to numerous, frequent and/or complex letters, telephone calls or emails.
  • Sufficient opportunity to respond to existing requests has not been provided.
  • It is repetitive, excessive, or duplicates previous correspondence without new information. This includes instances where the same request is directed through multiple routes.
  • It imposes an unreasonable burden on our resources, preventing us from effectively fulfilling our duties.
  • It demonstrates a disregard for the facts or evidence presented in previous responses.
  • It is made with the primary intention of causing disruption or annoyance rather than seeking resolution.

When assessing requests made under the Freedom of Information Act 2000 (FOIA), or UK General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) ‘Right of access’ the concepts of “proportionality” and “justification” are central to any consideration of whether a request is vexatious.

4.3. Handling Process

4.3.1. Initial Assessment

There are existing processes within the organisation to deal with external complaints and requests for information. Employees must follow the existing processes to direct the complaint or communication to the correct team. Upon receipt of a complaint or communication, the relevant team will conduct an initial assessment to determine its validity and substance and which process this should be responded to under.

Standard comments or complaints will be processed through the organisation’s Customer Care and Compliments, Comments, and Complaints procedures (CCC).

Requests for information held by WMFS will be processed in line with the Management of Information Policy. If upon assessment of a request under the Freedom of Information Act 2000 (FOIA), we consider there are sufficient grounds, the request may be refused under Section 14(1) Vexatious or Repeated requests.

Requests for information about the requester will be processed under UK GDPR, Article 15 (Right of access).

The UK GDPR and DPA 2018 recognise that, in some circumstances, there may be legitimate reasons for not providing information and provide a number of potential exemptions from the right of access. This includes provision for refusal of requests which are deemed to be manifestly unfounded or excessive.

4.3.2. Response:

Where a complaint or complainant is determined to be unreasonable, unreasonably persistent or vexatious, a response will be provided to the complainant or sender, outlining our decision and any actions to be taken.

We will endeavour to provide clear and concise explanations for our decisions, while also asserting our right to manage unreasonable or unreasonably persistent communications.

Responses will be in line with the timelines set out in the Customer Care and Compliments, Comments, and Complaints Policy.

Response to requests made under FOIA 2000 and the UK GDPR ‘Right of access’ will be responded to within statutory time frames. This is 20 working days for FOI requests and one calendar month for ‘Right of access’ requests.

All steps and decisions related to the handling of unreasonable or unreasonably persistent complaints or communications will be documented for record-keeping and transparency purposes.

Complaints will be retained for a period of three years for auditing purposes and trend analysis and will be securely destroyed after this.

4.3.3 Imposing Restrictions

Stage 1

Contact will be made with the complainant (in writing or via email) to explain why their behaviour is causing concern, request that they refrain from continuing in this manner, and outline the actions that WMFS may take if they do not comply.

Stage 2

If the disruptive behaviour continues, the Clerk and/or Monitoring Officer, in consultation with the Chief Fire Officer (CFO)/ Chief Executive Officer (CEO) will consider what restrictions are required to be initiated to prevent it from continuing.

Any restriction that is imposed on the complainant’s contact with the WMFS will be appropriate and proportionate.

WMFS will issue a letter to the complainant. This will include any restrictions on contacting WMFS or WMFRA, advising them of the way in which they will be allowed to contact the WMFS and for what period these restrictions will be in place.

Any restrictions applied will be reviewed on a quarterly basis.

Restrictions will be tailored to deal with the individual circumstances of the complaint and may include the below non-exhaustive steps/examples:

  • Banning the complainant;

from attending all WMFS or WMFRA premises, in circumstances where Members’ or Officers’ safety may be considered at risk;
from making contact by telephone except through a third party, e.g.: a solicitor, a spouse or family member, or a friend acting on their behalf;
from sending emails to individuals and/or all WMFS Officers or WMFRA Elected Members and insisting they only correspond by post;
Requiring contact to take place with one named member of WMFS staff only;
Restricting telephone calls to specified days and/or times or duration;
Requiring any personal contact to take place in the presence of an appropriate witness;
Advising the complainant that WMFS will not respond to or acknowledge any further contact on the specified or related topic(s) of that complaint.

Stage 3

Where a complainant continues to behave in a way that is unacceptable, the Clerk and/or Monitoring Officer, in consultation with the Chair of the Fire Authority and/or Chief Fire Officer / Chief Executive Officer may decide to refuse all contact with the complainant and stop any investigation into his or her complaint.

Where the behaviour is so extreme or threatens the immediate safety and welfare of staff, other options will be considered, including reporting the matter to the police or taking appropriate legal action. In such cases, the complainant may not be given prior notice of any such action.

4.3.4. Appeal Process

Individuals who disagree with our decision regarding the handling of their complaint or communication may have the right to appeal. Details of the appeals process will be provided in our response.